Michael J. Sandel "WHAT MONEY CAN'T BUY" Introduction: Markets and Morals I 12

The financial crisis had pitched the United States and much of the global economy into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression and left millions of people out of work. Yet it did not prompt a fundamental rethinking of markets. [...]


Despite their different ideological orientations, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street activists gave voice to populist outrage against the bailout.

Notwithstanding these voices of protest, serious debate about the role and reach of markets remains largely absent from our political life. Democrats and Republicans argue, as they long have done, about taxes, spending, and budget deficits, only now with greater partisanship and little ability to inspire or persuade. Disillusion with politics has deepened as citizens grow frustrated with a political system unable to act for the public good, or to address the questions that matter most.

This parlous state of public discourse is the second obstacle to a debate about the moral limits of markets. At a time when political argument consists mainly of shouting matches on cable television, partisan vitriol on talk radio, and ideological food fights on the floor of Congress, it's hard to imagine a reasoned public debate about such controversial moral questions as the right way to value procreation, children, education, health, the environment, citizenship, and other goods. But I believe such a debate is possible, and that it would invigorate our public life.

Some see in our rancorous politics a surfeit of moral conviction: too many people believe too deeply, too stridently, in their own convictions and want to impose them on everyone else. I think this misreads our predicament. The problem with our politics is not too much moral argument but too little. Our politics is overheated be­ cause it is mostly vacant, empty of moral and spiritual content. It fails to engage with big questions that people care about.

The moral vacancy of contemporary politics has a number of sources. One is the attempt to banish notions of the good life from public discourse. In hopes of avoiding sectarian strife, we often insist that citizens leave their moral and spiritual convictions behind when they enter the public square. But despite its good intention, the reluctance to admit arguments about the good life into politics prepared the way for market triumphalism and for the continuing hold of market reasoning.

In its own way, market reasoning also empties public life of moral argument. Part of the appeal of markets is that they don't pass judgment on the preferences they satisfy. They don't ask whether some ways of valuing goods are higher, or worthier, than others. If someone is willing to pay for sex or a kidney, and a consenting adult willing to sell, the only question the economist asks is, "How much?" Markets don't wag fingers. They don't discriminate between admirable preferences and base ones. Each party to a deal decides for himself or herself what value to place on the things being exchanged.

This nonjudgmental stance toward values lies at the heart of market reasoning and explains much of its appeal. But our reluctance to engage in moral and spiritual argument, together with our embrace of markets, has exacted a heavy price: it has drained public discourse of moral and civic energy, and contributed to the technocratic, managerial politics that afflicts many societies today.

A debate about the moral limits of markets would enable us to decide, as a society, where markets serve the public good and where they don't belong. It would also invigorate our politics, by welcoming competing notions of the good life into the public square. For how else could such arguments proceed? If you agree that buying and selling certain goods corrupts or degrades them, then you must believe that some ways of valuing these goods are more appropriate than others. It hardly makes sense to speak of corrupting an activity - parenthood, say, or citizenship-unless you think that some ways of being a parent, or a citizen, are better than others.

Moral judgments such as these lie behind the few limitations on markets we still observe. We don't allow parents to sell their children or citizens to sell their votes. And one of the reasons we don't is, frankly, judgmental: we believe that selling these things values them in the wrong way and cultivates bad attitudes.

Thinking through the moral limits of markets makes these questions unavoidable. It requires that we reason together, in public, about how to value the social goods we prize. It would be folly to expect that a morally more robust public discourse, even at its best, 1Imuld lead to agreement on every contested question. But it would make for a healthier public life. And it would make us more aware of the price we pay for living in a society where everything is up for sale.

When we think of the morality of markets, we think first of Wall Street banks and their reckless misdeeds, of hedge funds and bailouts and regulatory reform. But the moral and political challenge we lace today is more pervasive and more mundane-to rethink the role and reach of markets in our social practices, human relationships, and everyday lives.